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Volleyball: Star libero Rodriguez leaving Sterling early for Nebraska

Lexi Rodriguez helped the Sterling High School volleyball team reach new heights in her 3 years on the varsity team.

If the Golden Warriors are to continue that success, it will be without her in the lineup.

The 5-foot-6 Rodriguez, a libero and the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, announced Wednesday night she plans to graduate from SHS in December and enroll at Nebraska in January. That would allow her to practice and play with the Cornhuskers right away, if things fall into place.

It also means she has played her last volleyball game at Sterling. Because of COVID-19, volleyball will be a spring sport in Illinois, a decision the Illinois High School Association announced July 29.

The wheels began turning for this move in summer 2019 at a volleyball camp at Nebraska. Rodriguez was there with the rest of the recruiting class of 2021, including the nation’s top-ranked player, Kennedi Orr, a setter from Eagan, Minn.

Orr told Rodriguez that she planned to graduate from high school a semester early to get to Nebraska as quickly as possible. Rodriguez asked the Nebraska coach, John Cook, about that possibility.

“I talked to [Cook], and he said if I wanted to do that, it was totally available,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t really look that much into it because I was going to be a junior and still had half of my high school left to go.”

Rodriguez was soon to embark on the volleyball journey of a lifetime. She was a member of the Team USA U18 team that won a world championship in Egypt. She then returned to Sterling and helped the Golden Warriors win their second straight IHSA Class 3A state championship.

That helped get Rodriguez thinking an early move to Nebraska might be the move to make, only to have doubt once again enter her mind.

“This past summer, me and my family kind of knew that’s what I was going to do, to get on course to graduate early,” Rodriguez said. “We thought it was pretty official, but once all of this [COVID-19] stuff happened and the IHSA moved volleyball to the spring, everything was not what it was supposed to be like. We pushed everything to the side. We couldn’t make a decision right then because there was too much unknown.”

One phone call, however, changed everything.

Cook, who has guided Nebraska to 588 wins and four national championships in 20 seasons, called Rodriguez with some news.

“He said if I still wanted to go early, I could play with them in the spring, and still have my four years of eligibility,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll be able to play with the team for five years. Once we found that out, it made it official that I’d go early. That’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up – to train and play at Nebraska and not lose a year.”

What kind of season that might be is a fluid situation. Rodriguez was told there was a possibility of playing a conference-only schedule in the spring, with some type of postseason also a possibility.

Academics-wise, Rodriguez, who carries a 3.8 grade-point average, did not have to do much to graduate early. In addition to a normal workload, she’s taking a second-semester English class online, and will meet the requirements to graduate in December. To help stay in shape, she’s playing tennis this fall at Sterling and competes at No. 1 doubles with Anna Meltzer.

Volleyball and another season of dominance with lifelong friends and teammates in Sterling was the only reason she considered a normal spring graduation.

“That was the only thing that was holding me back,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t want to leave my high school team and the possibility of playing for another state championship.”

It was a difficult task to tell those teammates of her decision.

“My teammates like the Borums [twins Brook and Bree] and Grace Egan, they were happy for me, of course, but at the same time sad because I won’t be playing with them,” Rodriguez said. “They also made a good point that there might not even be a [high school] season. Stuff could change and they might just cancel it in the spring, too. It’s mixed emotions, happy and sad.”

Sterling volleyball coach Dale Dykeman was happy to have Rodriguez anchor his teams for three seasons, but understands why a fourth won’t happen.

“Her leaving is the culmination of what she’s worked so hard for, and it’s a great opportunity,” Dykeman said. “It’s the right choice for her. Even if we did have volleyball in the fall, we knew that it was in the works for her to go early. There are just too many unknown variables, with volleyball in the spring this year. We could have some sort of season, but no state tournament. Nobody knows right now.

“… It doesn’t feel like it’s the perfect ending for this group. Not having Lexi will leave us with a big hole to fill, but it’s going to be OK.”

In the spring, Rodriguez will be tuned in to whatever device she needs to be to watch the Sterling volleyball matches.

“I’ll be so happy, cheering them on for their run and hoping they can make history and get that three-peat,” Rodriguez said, “but it will be hard to watch them, knowing that’s my team and I’m not a part of it.”

When asked what she’ll miss the most, Rodriguez didn’t mention any specific individuals or matches or rivalries, but the love and support she always felt from her hometown.

“I know Nebraska is known for its support, but it’s different when you live in a small town like this,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone’s kind of like your family, and they are always so proud of you and cheering you on. You know them. They’re people you grew up with or have known you since you were a little kid.”

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